A Tale of Two Students (and how to meet their needs)

In recent months I have had the privilege of tutoring two students each with his or her own set of challenges with reading. I want to share some strategies and ideas that have helped these students in our tutoring time.

Sarah–struggles reading words

Sarah (not her real name) is a fourth grade student who struggles with fluency. That is, she has problems reading the words on the page. Her reading sounds choppy because she has to take a lot of time to stop and figure out the words. In fact, when we began working together I noticed that she would take 30, 45 or 60 seconds to decode or figure out a word. I was impressed with her tenacity but worried that in taking so long to figure out individual words, she was not comprehending what she was reading. So here are some “strategies” or ideas I shared with her to help her in her reading:

  1. The first thing I told Sarah was to not take so long in working on individual words. I taught her to “skip it and go on” if she could not quickly figure out a word. Give it a few seconds, I suggested, and then read on. If you know what is going on in the text, keep reading. You know what? A lot of the time she did know what was going on and by not slowing down so much, her comprehension improved even though she didn’t know every word on the page. However, there were times when she didn’t fully understand what she read, so I taught her another strategy.
  2. If you aren’t sure what is going one (that is, if you aren’t comprehending what you read), then go back and reread that section of text. I told her, “skip it and go on but go back and reread when you need to.” Two things happened when Sarah reread sentences and passages she had just read. First, she often understood or comprehended what she was reading after she reread it. Second, she was able to figure out many of the words she missed in that second reading.

Because Sarah struggles with words and that makes her a less fluent reader, we do a lot of word work together. I created flash cards for common sight words she missed and other strategies for vocabulary terms she needed to learn. But, these two ideas–skip and go on, and reread it when you need to–were powerful tools that helped her in her reading.

Kyle–reads beautifully but “doesn’t get it”

Kyle is an 8th grade student who enjoys school but in our first meeting together shared with me that often he does not understand what he reads. Unlike Sarah, he reads beautifully but does not understand much of what he reads. In working with Kyle, I have used a partner reading strategy like “Say Something” to model comprehension. I read a paragraph and then say something about what I just read–summarize or ask a question, make a prediction. Then Kyle reads a paragraph and he says something about what he read. I am trying to get Kyle to think of reading as a conversation we have with a text or book. In order to comprehend, we have to think about what we read, ask questions, make predictions, and stop and ask ourselves: “do I know what’s going on?” If not, then we reread to comprehend. I’ve also had Kyle use sticky notes to jot down notes about what he’s reading. He pastes them in the book and then reviews them.

No “magic bullets”

There are no magic bullets to tutoring. No one curriculum or strategy that helps all kids who struggle with reading. Good tutoring involves watching and listening to a child and trying to figure out what that child needs. Is the problem fluency? Or is it comprehension? Maybe the challenge is more about learning to decode words or learn more sight words. Whatever the challenge, it’s our job as a tutor to meet that child at his or her point of need, to address that child’s specific challenges.

Want more ideas about tutoring? Go to the Center for Adolescent Literacies website or post your thoughts to this blog. We’d love to hear from you.

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About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when they can join us, our kids.
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